New Orleans above ground cemeteries are iconic landmarks. But why would anyone want to be buried in tombs above ground? Credit the unique culture and history of the city itself.
Above ground cemeteries in New Orleans, Louisiana are as synonymous with the city as jazz, Bourbon Street and gumbo. Tourists flock to these eerie “cities of the dead” and marvel at the towering vaults, the twisting labyrinth of stone pathways, and the cultural variety of monuments and markers. Anne Rice’s novel Interview With the Vampire and the film Easy Rider are but two pieces of popular culture that have used these New Orleans cemeteries as their backdrop.
The unique layout and seemingly haphazard construction of these cemeteries mirror the strange history of New Orleans itself.
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Why Are New Orleans Cemeteries Above Ground?
Around 15 New Orleans cemeteries contain tombs built above ground. The main reason for such burials has to do with the city’s unique location.
New Orleans was settled in 1718 on a raised river bank beside the Mississippi River. The Mississippi would flood annually, depositing sediment it collected on its journey through North America. These silt deposits collected on the riverbanks and formed natural levees, or raised embankments of land (“levee” is derived from the French verb “lever,” meaning “raised”). New Orleans sits on top of one of these well-drained levees.
But the first residents would soon discover the folly of trying to bury their dead in this raised riverbank. When flood season came, the water table rose beneath the coffins, pushing them like corks out of the ground. They would swiftly break apart and human remains were washed away – sometimes through the city streets!
The First Above Ground Cemeteries
When the Catholic Church built the first official cemetery outside city limits (around present-day St. Peter Street), they built a brick wall around it to stop corpses washing away. But with annual floods and high amounts of rainfall, the walled cemetery would become a virtual swimming pool of bodies.
The year 1788 was a horrible one for New Orleans. A massive fire, flood and an epidemic wiped out a large portion of the city. Such a high death toll brought high demand for burial plots, so a second cemetery was built outside town. St. Louis Cemetery #1 became the city’s first above ground burial site (it’s currently the city’s oldest surviving cemetery). This time, the bodies stayed in place during flooding season, and above ground burial soon became the norm.
Land shortage has always been a problem for New Orleans and its cemeteries. Before water pumps drained the surrounding lands at the turn of the 20th century, New Orleans was surrounded by water. So these cemeteries have little wasted space. Towering crypts and winding pathways intersect at odd angles – much like New Orleans city streets.
A Multicultural Resting Place
Like homes in the older New Orleans neighborhoods, the tombs tend to be long, tall and narrow, and crammed next to one another. With the cultural mixture of people buried within, the architecture is unique and varied. There is little separation between wealth and race. Therefore, the deceased are neighbors in death as they were (and, in certain areas, still are) in their New Orleans communities.
Land shortage also brought about the need for quick reuse of burial vaults and graves. Many family vaults in the old New Orleans cemeteries contain remains from several generations. With high temperatures and 100 percent humidity (not to mention hordes of insects), bodies decompose very quickly in New Orleans.
So citizens have traditionally followed a strict “year and a day” policy. Cemeteries give newly interred bodies a year and a day to decompose. Afterwards, staff remove bodies from their coffins and push them to the back of the grave to make room for another body. They then throw the old coffins into public dumpsters – a startling sight for many tourists!
As gruesome as this procedure may sound, it’s a tradition in New Orleans to this day, despite the miles of dry land now available for below ground burial. New Orleans cemeteries are not only “cities of the dead,” but also cities of the living – deeply spiritual places where families, neighbors and cultures share close bonds. This is evident during All Saints Day, the Catholic feast day dedicated to the deceased which has been described as “Mardi Gras for the dead.”
Ghosts, Voodoo and Hollywood
Naturally, these historic New Orleans cemeteries are magnets for tourists, ghost hunters and filmmakers seeking creepy stories and locations.
Famous ghost stories include the “Flaming Tomb” of Josie Arlington in Metairie Cemetery and voodoo queen Marie Laveau in St. Louis Cemetery #1. Marie Laveau’s grave in particular draws a steady stream of international visitors.
Famed New Orleans author Anne Rice featured Lafayette Cemetery #1 in her bestselling novels Interview With The Vampire and The Witching Hour. The cemetery became so connected with Rice by her fans she staged a mock jazz funeral there to promote her book Memnoch the Devil (she rode in a glass enclosed coffin).
The movie adaptation of Interview With The Vampire starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt shot in Lafayette Cemetery #1. In fact, Lafayette is New Orleans’ most filmed cemetery, seen in films like Dracula 2000 and Deja Vu, along with the TV series The Originals.
Not all filming is welcome in these historic cemeteries. The cast of the classic 1969 film Easy Rider (Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Karen Black) filmed an “acid trip” sequence in St. Louis Cemetery #1. Fonda infamously spread himself atop the Italian Mutual Benevolent Society tomb.
Since the producers of Easy Rider never applied for a permit, the Archdiocese of New Orleans banned any filming in their cemeteries except for documentaries or pre-approved projects. In fact, only visitors with tour guides and family members of the deceased can now visit St. Louis Cemetery #1. Due, in large part, to the continued vandalism of Marie Laveau’s grave and others.
Save Our Cemeteries
Constantly exposed to swampy New Orleans weather, above ground cemeteries are often in extreme disrepair. The city owns several cemeteries, with upkeep regularly cut from the budget. And many families of the deceased have died away, or aren’t interested in expensive upkeep for a relative dead for generations.
Vandalism is also a constant threat. Random destruction from smashed markers to graffiti tagging has been reported. Numerous crypt break-ins have occurred, primarily for treasures buried with the deceased. Statuary, pieces of gates and other ornaments have been cut off and sold to antique markets. Even a recently interred body was once stolen from St. Louis Cemetery #1.
In response, a nonprofit organization called Save Our Cemeteries was formed in 1974. According to their website, their mission is “the preservation, promotion, and protection of New Orleans’ historic cemeteries through restoration, education, and advocacy.”
Save Our Cemeteries fills the gap where continued gravesite maintenance is hampered by a family’s financial hardship, general neglect or city indifference. Their historic New Orleans tours are crucial fundraisers, and well worth taking.
Visitors to the above ground cemeteries of New Orleans will find them not only to be places of sadness, but also of wondrous architecture, deep cultural tradition and pride, and a sense of peace. For a full list of above ground cemeteries, directions and tours, you can also visit the official New Orleans tourism website.
Header photo: Genthe photograph collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.